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Too Old For This: After years of rebuilding, the ghosts of the Islanders’ past remain present

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A very dumb and bad newspaper column leads to much soul searching for one Islanders fan.

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Damien Cox is a doofus. Going to the hairless Toronto Star columnist for any insights into the Islanders is like going to Cracker Barrel looking for a light, healthy snack. Not only will you not find what you’re looking for, but your stomach will feel like exploding.

Cox’s latest offering was the kind of article we’ve seen many times before: Toronto-based writer openly salivates over the idea of bringing John Tavares to the Maple Leafs. And it’s a first ballot Hall of Famer in a loaded category, too, full of insults and fear mongering and every Islanders narrative in the book. You may have read all of it before, but rarely with this much vigor. You can almost see Cox enjoying the smell of his own farts after he completed each sentence.

It’s not that I’m worried that Tavares will leave if and when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018 (I mean, I am worried about it. But I’m not worried about it. Not yet anyway). But Cox’s article depresses me in a way specific to any Islanders fan that has been with the team through many, many, many bad seasons and watched, hung on, debated and fretted every turn of the Tavares-led rebuild.

While he might sound like a deranged maniac writing to The Hockey News from his Unabomber cabin in the woods, Cox does highlight the big picture problem for the Islanders right now: Namely, they’re still the Islanders.

Still Waiting

Eight years after GM Garth Snow began the team’s top-to-bottom rebuild in earnest and seven years after drafting Tavares first overall as the centerpiece of that rebuild, the team is still viewed more as a curiosity, a three-ring circus, a pity case or all of the above. Just a few months after seeing the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 seasons, the Islanders are busted right back down to their previous laughingstock status without a moment’s hesitation. Some teams have season-opening slumps. The Islanders go straight to tire fire without passing Go or collecting $200.

This was all supposed to be over now. After all these seasons and Tavares magic and slowly climbing the ladder to respectability, the Islanders should be challenging for the top of the Metro Division or Eastern Conference, if not for the Stanley Cup. They should be more than a collection of “Who?” or “Why?” And yet that’s exactly what they are, at least to people like Cox, who don’t spend all day every day trapped inside the Islanders fan echo chamber.

Snow left the 2008 Entry Draft with over a dozen new players. The next season was a brutal gauntlet of losses, but the prize was Mr. Everything Tavares. You can chuck the next three or four seasons out the window while the team took it on the chin over and over again, believing that eventually success would find them.

The surprise run to the 2013 playoffs and a wild series with the Penguins looked like it might be the breakthrough point. But it wasn’t. The next season was a giant, embarrassing step backward, full of curious moves and on-ice confusion.

Then 2014-15 season looked like it might be the breakthrough point. In came Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk (those last two in separate trades within a single hour just prior to training camp) and suddenly the Islanders were a fun and exciting 101-point team that stumbled into the playoffs and lost a brutal first round series to the Capitals. So that wasn’t the breakthrough, either.

Last season, their first in Brooklyn, looked like it might be the breakthrough point. But the fun, exciting team from the previous year was nowhere to be found, replaced with a conservative, passive, boring system that was often bailed out by excellent goaltending despite racking up another 100 points. Even the victorious playoff series was more about Tavares and Thomas Greiss beating the Florida Panthers than the Islanders’ ascendance.

And so we come to this season, in which the Islanders are a near-cap ceiling team that can barely string two good periods together in a row still with only one true star player. The rest of the roster isn’t bad exactly (and is probably better than they’ve shown so far), but it’s not a team that was eight years in the making. Not a team that’s ready to fight for its place among the NHL’s best. They’re just, sort of, there.

Eight years is too long to just be there.

Ten Year Blizzard

This is how the last ten seasons have gone for the Islanders under Snow. Some good, some bad, some unforeseen circumstances, some problems everyone could see coming a mile away. There have been bold strikes that made observers nod in approval and puzzling moves that became popular punchlines. He’s cut bait on young players that weren’t in the plans and had infinite patience with some frustrating veterans (and one coach).

Every little victory raises more questions and every set-back has a silver lining. You can build a case that Snow could and should be let go from his duties today. He’s also without question the second best GM in team history behind only the legendary Bill Torrey.

The current problems not only look like they’re not subsiding but they seem to be increasing. If the season continues as it has started, the playoffs will be an unreachable mirage by Thanksgiving. Another season of Tavares will be wasted even earlier than in the last couple of years. And still without that big breakthrough.

Eight years in, the Islanders still don’t have a reliable second line. Or a winger to pair with Tavares for consistency and chemistry. Or a single, everyday starting goalie. Or a true power play quarterback. Or a defined, well-executed, steady game plan that maximizes their strengths as a unit. Or a long term home arena that’s without external distractions (that one’s not on Snow, but I figured I’d throw it in anyway).

I believe Tavares when he says he wants to re-sign with the Islanders next summer. I also believe Damien Cox when he says the Islanders are a circus.

I also believed we’d be past all of this by now. We’re all too old for this shit.